Three states of Church

Question: When I learned catechism many decades ago, I was taught that there are three states of the Church -- the church triumphant, the church militant and the church suffering. Is this still a valid way of thinking?

-- William C., San Jose, Calif.

Answer: What you were taught in your catechism classes is indeed still valid, although it is not commonplace today to hear the description of the various states of the Church as you describe them.

The church triumphant describes the Church in heaven. In the kingdom of God -- the realm in which the holy Trinity, the angels and saints, and the abode of all those who have reached the fullness of salvation in Christ -- the Church already exists. But it will have its fullest being at the end of time, when all of creation and (we hope) all human beings will be conformed to Christ and all reality will be one of divine praise and glory.

The term "church triumphant" underlines the truth that in the glory of heaven all human sin will have been transformed, death and suffering will be no more, and the glory of God will have triumphed over all the imperfections of human history.

The church militant refers to the Church on earth. The term "militant" can suggest an antagonistic relationship between the Church and the world. Nevertheless, it refers to an authentic reality: that the Church on earth works to overcome the imperfect and sinful dimensions of human existence.

The Church's mission is not to oppose the world and society, but to work for their transformation by the convincing preaching of the Gospel and by the edifying power of the good works and example of those who are baptized into Christ. The Church's best asset is the saintly activity and example of those who have chosen the Christian way of life.

The church suffering refers to the church in purgatory. Purgatory is not a kind of temporary hell. It is rather the threshold, the antechamber of heaven. In purgatory, all those -- whether Christian or not -- who have reached the gates of death without reaching the full perfection of life represented in Christ are cleansed in a kind of ongoing baptism and are purified by the enlightening fire of the Holy Spirit. The suffering of purgatory is not one of destruction, but the suffering that comes from leaving the old self behind and taking on the new.

Purgatory, as I have stated before, is not an isolated experience, but a communal one in which all our imperfect relationships are purified and made whole. Purgatory is a place in which, after death, we learn the fullness of divine praise.

The Ten Commandments

Question: I think our clergy have "screwed up" in not pointing out the strict moral discipline demanded by the Ten Commandments. When priests were ordained, they were given the title "Father." Isn't it time for them to act like fathers by stressing sin and discipline and not conducting "love-ins" to avoid hurting the feelings of Catholics?

-- B.B.,Manchester, Mo.

Answer: In my experience, the most effective fathers are those who combine strong moral teaching and discipline with compassion and who maintain an attitude of love and solidarity with their children. So it is also with priests. Many Catholics have chafed under the experience of harsh and uncompassionate action by clergy and Religious in decades past. It is also possible that in recent decades, those in ministry have tried to overcompensate by emphasizing only the "easier" aspects of the Gospel. But, it is not a matter of either/or. Strong moral teaching and a loving attitude go hand in hand.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.